Eric and I came back from Madrid last night. It was a wonderful trip, too wonderful to write about, really – how to find inspiration in a good time? Then this morning I was combing through my purse and my fingers closed around a small, dusty, irregularly-shaped object.
It was a sunflower seed. I rubbed it, and remembered:
Waiting to board our flight for Madrid, a news story comes on the TVs at JFK, a van striking a crowded bike lane in Manhattan. Where did they say? Where? I ask Eric, thinking of my daughter out in the city. She just posted a photo of herself walking a dog, for sure Manhattan. Eric thinks it’s the Upper West Side. I feel bad to say I felt relieved “oh she wouldn’t be up there.” Then learn it’s downtown, west side. I text her, are you okay? Sometimes I wait forever to hear back from her when I text but she answers immediately that she’s fine. How awful for the people who lost their loved ones, out for a stroll or leaving work on a beautiful fall day.
Coming from the airport into Madrid, we struggle trying to communicate with the driver. His English is as nonexistent as our Spanish. For some reason, Eric tries French – “Ah, c’est plus facile!” the driver exclaims. He was born in Casablanca and French is his native tongue. Suddenly we are buddies, pals. It reminds me of our time in France, how I liked hearing Eric speak French and the way it made it easier for me to learn. Those years weren’t easy, but they were special. It brings that back to me a little, being here in Europe again. We’ll always have…Cussac.
Check into our servicable hotel and take a nap before going out for a stroll. I’m tainted by my relationship with New York forever into feeling that cities kind of work on a grid and if we just go down this one street, well it’s pretty much parallel to that street, and so by turning left here we should end up there – a sure fire way to get lost. A sure fire way to end up – climbing a wall into what seemed like a traffic island but is in fact a giant fountain with Neptune at its center. For the moment the fountain is dry but as we scramble across to the other side, I start imagining the two of us limping back to our hotel drenched and sheepish. “Run, Eric, run!” I shriek, beginning to panic. We climb down over another wall and across a few lanes of traffic, unscathed but a little less sure about where exactly we’re headed.
The next time we pass the fountain, I notice they have stretched red and white hazard tape all around the perimeter. I picture CCTV footage of two late middle aged morons’ ungainly clamber and sprint being the straw that broke the camel’s back – “Ai ai ai, we can’t have this – get out there with the tape, Jose Luis…”
We’re in Spain for Lindsay Hutton’s sixtieth birthday bash. Lindsay is Scottish and lives midway between Glasgow and Edinburgh, but Madrid is his heart and soul, the place he comes to have fun and feel free. Lindsay, Eric and I are roaming the streets of Malasana neighborhood. What at first felt like another of the world’s great cities in a postcard-on-a-rack kind of way begins to come alive for real as Lindsay shows us his fave spots, like an Eggleston photo shows you Memphis. It’s in the details; knowing where and when to look. We sit in a tiny bar with cool seventies decor: “Gosh, how do these places stay in business?” We’re the only customers. “Don’t worry,” Lindsay says. “This place will be packed in a few hours.” It’s almost midnight. I take his word for it.
I’m sipping vermouth in Bodega de la Ardosa. Vermouth in Madrid is a revelation! Served on ice with a slice of orange. I’ve gotten some great tips from this Eater article and drinking vermut is one of them, accompanied by ham and anchovies and roasted artichoke and…the servers are so nice, after working hard to learn French I just wish I had spent some time learning Spanish. Rather than upselling, they dissuade us from ordering too much food. “If you want, you get more later, okay?”
Lindsay is spinning records at the Weirdo Bar. It’s one of the rock and roll bars all over this part of the city with name and aesthetic like you are in a garage rock Disneyland – Taboo, Angie, Madklyn, Tiki – not cleaned up but just those essential elements of the fairy tale and the only thing missing in this picture is you, preferably in a striped or band t-shirt, black jeans, unwashed hair with a pint glass in your hand.
The room is packed with friends, faces from years of gigs here and there swimming before my eyes. Lindsay plays Sonny & Cher’s “It’s The Little Things.” I shout along with him and the record, thinking of the Skeletons from Springfield Missouri who covered this song. I raise my glass to the late great Lou Whitney and dear departed friend Jim Wunderle, drummer Bobby Lloyd Hicks also, Springfield buddies who are suddenly in the Weirdo bar with us, singing along too.
We spend a day finding coffee (good), finding food (great), getting equipment and songs together for the Friday night party. I wish I had more clothes to choose from but we packed one suitcase between us and it felt like a fun challenge to travel light (always with one eye towards finding some fabulous Spanish thrift store scores).
Standing in a bare bones cafe, cash only, I’m waiting for Amy Allison to come back from a bank machine. We’ve just eaten a crazy, delicious meal or snack, the type I would never have back home – cold white wine, a platter of jamon, the Spanish national treasure, another platter of cold potatoes nestled in pillows of fluffy garlic mayonaise. Hot chorizo, action-packed green olives. Anything else I asked for on the menu they were out of. The proprietress has not smiled once, and continues to not smile as I wait. But I ask her if I can have some sunflower seeds from the little bowl by the cash register and she grudglingly nods. They are so salty, I almost choke and not wanting to be rude, surreptitiously place the rest of the handful in my purse.
A half hour before it’s time to play, we’re hungry again. No time to find a real place to eat, we slam fresh juice and muffins at the most beautiful McDonald’s I’ve ever seen, just around the corner from the club. Hey it wouldn’t be a real gig without some hardship! I love how even in McCafe, in Madrid there is always fresh orange juice.
Me and Eric are onstage with Amy Allison. She’s singing Walking To The End Of The World and for one second I feel like Johnny Cash guitarist Luther Perkins. Amy is one of my favorite singers, songwriters and just the most delightful person. The sound of her voice stops a room, stops time – it’s a treasure, like her songs that stay embedded in your mind.
Eric and I haven’t played a set together in a while now – we’ve played his stuff and we’ve played my stuff but Eric & Amy is almost a nostalgia act due for a revival sometime soon? Here in Madrid we’re the old team again, I remember how lucky to sing with this guy I am, the way our guitars mesh and when we play Do You Remember That, it’s our story being sung along to by a good many members of the audience. I’ve had the chance to experience that with Whole Wide World a lot, but for my own song? We played it as a gift to Lindsay but it was a gift for me too.
At three in the morning we went out with Amy and our friends Jon and Karen from NY, hitting the only spot still open that might serve food. The food was peanuts, but the swanky cocktails surely had some vitamins and it was a different kind of Madrid crowd, where we got to be the slightly obnoxious ones, a feat that would’ve been impossible at Wurlitzer where the volume of music and pint glass-sized gin and tonics required a commitment to hardcore partying I don’t think I possessed as a twenty year old let alone now.
It took most of the next day to walk a few blocks to find breakfast. Entered a random cafe and Jon and Karen were just finishing coffee and pastries, and then Amy Allison appeared. Funny how these things work – even in a huge city, when you’re one of a group traveling for a shared purpose you tend to move almost as a single organism. We all have walk-on roles in each other’s TV show “Holiday in Madrid”.
Eric and I decided to spend a little time at the Prado – I know it’s one of those “a day isn’t anywhere near enough – it would take a lifetime to see everything!” places but really an hour and a half was enough for Goya’s Black Paintings and a couple really weird statues I can’t get out of my head. It was fun and no big surprise to see some other partygoers in the galleries, like we’d taken over the city. Of course the pressure to have the ultimate experience is off because I go to every city, good restaurant and museum fully expecting to return someday.
I’m watching Suzy y los Quatros play a fun, rocking set at the Wurlitzer Bar, all part of Lindsay’s Sesentafest. Lindsay is the connecting tissue between musical acts and fans and factions from Sweden to Seattle, and Madrid which he calls Mad-toon in the best Scottish accent is his favorite place and now he’s made it all of our favorite place as two hundred of his friends have gathered here to make merry. Oh wait, he’s up there on stage! This is such a blast. Oh shit – he’s stage diving, going over backward into the crowd. I’ve never participated in that type of thing but it’s Lindsay, I HAVE TO. I can’t let him drop. It becomes my mission to provide one of the pairs of upthrust arms keeping him aloft.
Wow, he seems like not the biggest guy AT ALL but he’s really heavy! Come on people, pull your weight here, WE CANNOT LET HIM DROP. I’m sweating way more than I ever do at the gym or yoga – is there a stage dive workout class like there used to be punk rock aerobics? Because this is hard. Aren’t we supposed to hand him off to the throng of people toward the back of the club?
Phew, he’s been passed back and now forward and deposited back on the stage. The festivities won’t end with our dear friend and host riding through the streets of Madrid in the back of an ambulance.
I met Lindsay almost two decades ago in Glasgow, after playing my first Scottish gig ever. That night, a girl threatened to beat me up in the ladies room of Thirteenth Note club, and drunken football fans harassed and terrorized me until morning at the B&B where I was staying – pre-cellphone and no phone in the room to call for help. I didn’t realize this was my initiation into the Scottish fraterni-sorority, similar to hazing – they break you down to let you in and once you’re a part of it, that’s settled, you’ll keep coming back forever. Lindsay has been like a guardian angel to me since then. He’s made sure I never have to go back to that B&B. He ran the Cramps fan club and Next Big Thing fanzine and he’s done it all for love. He’s one of the kindest ways people like me – people without “people” – can keep getting back out there. People without people need people. He’s our people.
We rock to the Nomads, a cool Swedish band Lindsay’s told me about for years, they are clearly warriors who’ve done this forever and make it matter. The Dahlmanns played a tight set earlier, they made me smile with their up version of Dancing With Joey Ramone, it felt like a dream to hear my song from a spot in the audience. And a quartet of cute women from Norway called Reine Laken played a brief set, hanging on for dear life as they don’t do gigs often. I loved their joy and enthusiasm – it reminded me that the Raincoats were probably that very moment playing a set in NYC in celebration of the 33 1/3 book about their classic first album. I thought of how they really lit the fire for me, that this isn’t about doing it right (though you try to as very best you can) but doing it real – that’s what will always matter most. I couldn’t be in two places at once but for a second it almost felt like I was.
Heading back to the hotel we bumped into friends who were going off in search of churros and chocolate, the thing to have when you’re needing something other than alcohol at three in the morning. After a half an hour or so walking in a general direction, sniffing the air for sugar-dusted fried dough, we started to resemble that group of bleary survivors in the Poseidon Adventure, bumping into another group or two of bedraggled revelers on rain-slicked cobblestones, greeting each other with one word: “Churros?” I expected a hellish KFC-stye counter bathed in fluorescent light but when we finally found the place, it was dark green and wood paneled and glamourous and snooty, with photos of celebrities lining the walls and porcelain cups of the richest chocolate. Each of us dunked and raised our swords of crispy deliciousness, individual Excaliburs, all kings and queens of Madrid fated to come back. The only thing missing was Lindsay, who was at the Wurlitzer club still rocking. But I plunged an extra churro deep into the chocolate, pulled it out and lifted it high, then ate it for him.